Theatre Director Berger Steps Down,Reflects on Successful 28-Year Run
July 2, 2007
In 1969, the world was changing. As events such as Woodstock and the Vietnam War altered the way Americans looked at the world around them, a young actor and director was about to transform the University of Houston’s theater program.
That year, Sidney Berger arrived at the University of Houston to take the position of drama department chair. Within a few years, he began evolving UH’s tiny program into the nationally recognized School of Theatre & Dance.
After 38 years, Berger is stepping down from this position but will remain as active as ever teaching, directing main stage productions and producing the school’s annual festivals, which he founded: the Children’s Theatre Festival — co-founded by Bren Dubay — and the Houston Shakespeare Festival. Both of these festivals entertain thousands of Houstonians every year.
Steven Wallace, formerly of Florida State University, will become the school’s director in fall.
Berger has groomed many stage professionals for success and stardom, including Hollywood actors Randy and Dennis Quaid. Berger also lured theater legends such as Jose Quintero, Edward Albee and Sir Peter Hall to UH to impart their wisdom on students. He has the distinction of serving as the first executive director of the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts at UH. Berger also helped oversee the renovation of the building housing the Lyndall Finley Wortham Theatre. Just recently, he received the Ruth Denney Award from Houston’s Theater Under the Stars, which honors stage professionals who shape young artists’ lives.
UH Today sat down with Berger to discuss his time as the school’s director and why he decided to leave this position.
UH Today: Why are you departing this position after such a successful run?
Berger: I’ve been here for almost 40 years. I may have outlasted Fidel Castro as a leader. I felt it was time to pass the dreams and ideas to someone who can take them even further. The school has grown beyond my wildest dreams, and it’s time for a new dreamer to lead it.
UH Today: What led you to the University of Houston?
Berger: I had been teaching at another institution, but was not enjoying myself. It was in a remote, small town. The isolation took away the competitive edge I believe any artist needs to hone his craft. I wanted to go to a place where there was competition, so I could sharpen my skills. I also wanted to have standards that were competitive with the best. If I settled for second best, it would have been the death of me artistically.
UH Today: Describe the state of UH’s theater program when you arrived on campus.
Berger: When I came to UH, there was no School of Theatre & Dance. It was called the drama department and was a two-person outfit that was staffed with part-timers. I was excited about the challenge of planting seeds and nurturing this program into something bigger and better. That was not an immediate process. When building something, it’s important to go slowly. You have to put every brick in place carefully or else the edifice will not last.
UH Today: What has been the biggest change you’ve witnessed since taking the reins at the School of Theatre & Dance?
Berger: I’ve seen a huge change in the reputation of the school and the university. This isn’t just within the city, but nationally and around the world. Renowned talent has come to this campus for the sole purpose of grooming the next generation of theater professionals. People like Sir Peter Hall, Edward Albee, Stuart Ostrow, Lanford Wilson and so many others have contributed their energies to working with our students. Theater aside, UH has evolved into one of the finest institutions in the country, particularly with regard to all of its arts programs. If you look at all of the talent on campus in creative writing, art and music, UH is, no doubt, one of the best.
UH Today: You mentioned several legendary theater names. How did you lure these producers, directors and writers to UH?
Berger: I simply asked them. No other institution had approached these noted theater professionals, so I just picked up the phone and called them. The worst thing that could happen was that someone would say, “no.” It wasn’t brilliance on my part but rather bravery…or foolhardiness.
UH Today: You’ve been instrumental in developing two highly anticipated annual events, the Children’s Theatre Festival (CTF) and the Houston Shakespeare Festival (HSF). How did each of these get off the ground?
Berger: When I first came to Houston, I started attending events at Miller Outdoor Theater. I saw the symphony, ballet and the opera. I thought that it was remarkable facility, but noticed that there were no spoken-word performances. That was where the seeds for the HSF came from. I went to a meeting of the council overseeing the theater. Within 20 minutes, I received funding for the first season in 1975. It’s been going strong for more than 30 years.
With regard to the Children’s Theatre Festival, I am a firm believer that we must consistently cultivate new audiences. If we don’t do that, there will be dwindling audiences in the future. In graduate school, I studied Eastern European theater, which places emphasis on children’s theater. The United States has not embraced this art form, so I hoped to fill a void when CTF was started in 1978. We’ve been very fortunate to have featured the best people in the business to help us, including Charles Strauss, who wrote “Annie” and Jerry Bock, who wrote the songs for “Fiddler on the Roof.”
UH Today: In addition to the many big names who have committed their time and talents to UH productions, the school has produced of its own list of stars, including the Quaids, Brent Spiner and Robert Wuhl.
Berger: All of these actors are first-rate people as much as they’re first-rate talents. I remember I was taking a UH production of “Sweet Charity” to Europe for the Unites Service Organizations in the 1970s. At the time, Randy Quaid was cast in the film “The Last Picture Show.” He considered sticking with the play, but I couldn’t let him pass up this Hollywood opportunity, so I recast his role. His sense of commitment was very admirable.